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2008 Review of Books
Previously:2007 Review of Books,Books I recommend Without Reservation: 2006
I read exactly 100 books this year. I mistakenly told someone over the summer that I read a hundred books a year (I only read 70 last year, although 120 the year before that) and as the new year approached I felt duty-bound to make that true. (This led to spending a lot of New Year’s Eve in a corner reading, as this list may suggest.)
Here are the books (in chronological order), with occasional short comments. Books I’m happy to have read are linked. Books I recommend are in bold.
Lodge,Changing Places.
Typical campus novel fun, but with some great People’s Park stories.
Elster,Political Psychology. Short Elster essay collection. Probably for Elster fans only.
The Visible Hand.
Tough sledding, but important points.Read my summary.
Thaler,The Winner’s Curse
Poundstone,Fortune’s Formula
Fantastic fun. Math, mafiosi, movies.
MacKenzie,An Engine Not a Camera.
I recommendstarting with hisLRBstuff.
Fitch,Solidarity for Sale. For leftists who really love unions. You need to know the flaws to make them better.
Hoopes,False Prophets
A wonderful series of profiles of the most prominent management theorists going back to slavery and Taylor. The book’s editorial line is a bit marred by the inability of the author (a B-School prof and manager) to reconcile his belief that management power is unjust and that it is necessary. But solid history and good takedowns of some important figures.
Dani Rodrik,Has Globalization Gone Too Far?(lent by Henry Farrell). A good book, but not for general readers.
Wilson,To The Finland Station.
Really, really good. Edmund Wilson was the incredible writer you’d expect and this is his masterpiece.
Maurer,The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
Luc Sante’s introalone is worth the price of the book, but the rest of the book is fantastic as well. Everyone should know about con men. (The BBC’sHustleis obviously a television adaptation of the book.)
A Choice Not an Echo: The Inside Story of How American Presidents Are Chosen. Still crazy after all these years, although the whole anti-backroom thing is interesting. I read it to see what you could airdrop on college kids.
Khurana,Searching for a Corporate Savior
Really, truly great.
Is That a Politician in Your Pocket?(skimmed)
Elster,Explaining Social Behavior
Magical, magisterial masterpiece. (my review;more on Elster)
Piven,Challenging Authority. Kind of thin; I glazed over portions.
Lodge,Nice Work
Typical campus novel fun, but with deeper thoughts about business and finance.
Armstrong and Moulitsas,Crashing the Gate
Galbraith,The Predator State
My summary.
Brilliant. Wanted to see it before the movie came out.
Tilly,Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons
Mann,Sources of Social Power, Vol. 1
Tough reading, but really fascinating stuff.
Frank,The Wrecking Crew. Lots of good dirt, but not exactly the most rigorous theoretical argument.
Ken Silverstein,Turkmeniscam.
Great fun. Not just a great story of investigative journalism, but lots of interesting and important background as well. I’m a huge Silverstein fan.
DFW,Everything and More.
This book is an interesting, but, I think, ultimately unsuccessful experiment. DFW tries to teach math by channelling his favorite math teacher — writing in the style of an excitable lecturer, completely with verbal tics and backtracking (which, in printed form, becomes kind of a running gag).
It’s certainly not a bad book by any means, but I don’t think it’s really a successful model for how books can teach math.
Wodehouse,Psmith in the City. Hilarious. Psmith is a delight. I want to hear him acted but the recent BBC version is dreadful.
DFW,Consider the Lobster
DFW’s suicide hit me very hard. I ended up copingby reading every piece of nonfiction he’d ever published. He was a brilliant, tortured man and I see so much of myself in him. His nonfiction was fantastic and I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did.
If you want to get started, I recommend (best work first):
Krugman,Peddling Prosperity
Probably Krugman’s best book, it provides a throughly enjoyable and enlighteningintellectualoverview of the economics of the 1980s and 1990s. The delicious takedown of supplysiders is worth the book alone, but the rest is great too.
Tough,Whatever It Takes. A great read; a bit overly credulous — doesn’t address Keynesian critics of intervention or betray much skepticism about tests. (my review)
Love at Goon Park.
The first section is a (confessed!) retread ofBecoming Attached, one of my very favorite books (a 2006 highlight). But after that it gets much better and the interplay of animal and human stories is a lot of fun. I’ve been reading it to the five-year-old, who loves animal stories of all sorts, and she just laps it up. (I skip the incredibly dark parts, of course.)
Newsweek,Secrets of the 2008 Campaign(full text online). For campaign junkies only.
Very good. (my review)
Keynes,Economic Consequences of the Peace(full text online).
Wow, Keynes knows how to write. The first section is a must-read for any diplomat. Chapters 4 and 5 (which unfortunately are the bulk of the book) are only worth skipping or skimming for modern readers.
Kaufman,Synecdoche, New York(scripts). What a movie! There were a lot of script reviews that said things along the lines of “I don’t know if movies can capture a script this complex.” Reading the script now, you see the exact opposite is the case. The script is a pale imitation of the film, missing most of what made the film magical. Which just underscores what a great movie it was.
Bowles and Gintis,Schooling in Capitalist America.
Not the easiest read, but brilliant. One of the very very few books I want to read again (in this case, because I am sure I didn’t get it all the first time). The definitive Marxist take on education.
Smile When You’re Lying
Tons of fun. I hate traveling and have never cracked a travel book, but this angry and profane insider’s evisceration of the industry was still a complete joy.Read Ezra’s review— witha comment from the author!.
DFW,A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
Keynes,Essays in Persuasion.
Douthat,Privilege(lent by Rick Perlstein).
What is wrong with Ross Douthat? This book is eminently mockable, but I have to say I could see writing most of it myself. Which is weird, since Douthat is a staunch conservative and I’m a crazy-far-leftist. Is Douthat a double-agent? Or is he really this confused about what conservatism is about? I wrote this summary for Rick:
Prologue: Harvard is actually an education in the ruling class. [Ross didn’t like Harvard so much.]
1: Diversity policies ensure all sorts of ethnicities get accepted but they all come from the upper class. [Big black homeless guy starts living in Ross’s dorm.]
2: The real ruling class gets tapped for private clubs where they get connected to wealthy alumni and rape attractive coeds. [Ross gets invited to apply at various clubs and rejected.]
3: Students are aggressive social climbers, calibrating who they talk to and what activities they join to maximize their resume. [Ross’s friend’s friend gets arrested for embezzling.]
4: Persuaded that the market is God and academia is a sideshow, professors give students easy grades to help them get good jobs and be rich (thus proving the professors’ worth). Courses are poorly taught and maddeningly specific — its very difficult to get a solid general education. [Ross doesn’t like his classes and gets mediocre grades.]
5: Random drunken hookups are so common that the only way to get any kind of commitment is to fall into a college marriage (of which, I must say, there is a beautiful description pp. 145-147). [Ross falls head-over-heels for a totally agonizing tease, only to have her give it up months later to a preppy sailing kid who gets her drunk.]
6: Most harvard students arrive virgins and have a hards time getting any while they’re there, out of awkwardness and fear of threatening their spot in the overclass. [Ross can’t even get laid at an all-girls school.]
7: The student body is primarily New Democrat, with a smattering of vocal leftist protestors. [Ross supports the living wage movement. [ed. note:wtf?]]
8: Harvard students spend summers at elite internships acclimating to their future careers. [Ross goes sailing with William F. Buckley!]
9: 9/11 sucked. [Ross laps up the patriotic spirit and the Summers presidency.]
…and then a tearfelt ending.
Sorry, did I end up mocking it a little?
Gore,Sammy’s Hill. Yes, I have a weakness for chick lit.
DFW and Mark Costello,Signifying Rappers.
A great book, although surprisingly the best parts are written by Costello. A dense intermixed weave of music, history, race, law, fantasia, and brilliant writing.
The Telephone Gambit. Decently researched, mixed in with self-indulgent (and just plain bad) autobiography about writing the book. I wrote up a summary of the story which I’ll be publishing soon and you should probably just read that instead. But everybody should agree that Bell stole the telephone from Gray after this book.
Searle,The Campus War(full text online).
Actually, a really good book on the campus uprisings of the 1960s. First, there’s some terrific first-hand reporting from Searle’s experience at Berkeley (in which he participated in all three sides: the uprising, the faculty response, and the administration counterattack!). Second, there’s some good secondhand summarizing about the experience at other campuses. Third, there’s some good analysis about why campus uprisings happen and what they mean. Fourth, there are some interesting proposals for reforming the university. (I, too, want to get rid of the trustee system.) Makes me wish Searle did more non-philosophy books!
Haggis-on-Whey,Animals of the Ocean (In Particular, the Giant Squid). Not as good asthe original(now in its third edition!).
Happy new year!
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January  3, 2009